What is Tsar Bomba?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Tsar Bomba, or the King of Bombs, was the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. It produces an explosion equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to 13 kilotons of TNT. That means that Tsar Bomba, called "Big Ivan" in Russia, was almost 4,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It was a test explosion, detonated on 30 October 1961, in Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic archipelago. The size of the fireball was 4.6 km (2.8 mi) across, and would have destroyed everything in a 26.3 kilometer (16.3 mi) radius. "Big Ivan" left a massive crater which is observable today by satellite.

Tsar Bomba was detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961.
Tsar Bomba was detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961.

The Tsar Bomba was tested during a time of Cold War tension, when the United States was developing its ICBM missile systems and engaging in the Operation Dominic nuclear tests on the Pacific islands. The USSR needed to demonstrate its might, and originally planned a 100 megaton nuclear test. It was scaled back to 50 megatons to minimize fallout because it was calculated that winds would blow the dust cloud across northern Russia. The effects were astonishing.

Though powerful, the hydrogen bombs developed by the U.S. have only a fraction of the power of the 50 megaton "Tsar Bomba".
Though powerful, the hydrogen bombs developed by the U.S. have only a fraction of the power of the 50 megaton "Tsar Bomba".

Tsar Bomba was a huge bomb, about the size of a car. The USSR's heaviest carrier plane had to be modified in order to carry it. The bomb was outfitted with a special slow parachute, to give the plane time to travel a substantial distance away before the bomb was detonated. When the bomb exploded, the fireball was so tall that it touched the part of the sky where the plane was upon release. The mushroom cloud it produced was 60 km (37 mi) tall, almost seven times higher than Mount Everest, and 30-40 km wide.

If it were used in an actual war, Tsar Bomba would have been considered highly inefficient, but psychologically intimidating. At the time, USSR missile guidance systems were not at all perfect, and could miss their target by as much as 10 km (6.2 mi). The USSR government wanted a weapon that could destroy a city entirely even if it landed several miles away from it. That weapon was the Tsar Bomba.

The Soviet Union exerted influence through its military might.
The Soviet Union exerted influence through its military might.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon978910

Every nuclear weapon should be destroyed.

anon321703

I stayed home from school that day. Russia had been announcing something spectacular for more than a week. I was at home with my Mom when we felt it at 11:32 AM, EST. It (I'll remember it to the end )was like a heartbeat. The Earth actually stopped spinning for that length of time. "Oh, it was a dynamite truck," etc, all over the town. No way, Jose...I'd never seen Mom so scared.

BioNerd

There seems to have been little or no caution concerning the potential consequences of dropping this large car-sized bomb. What if the Arctic ice table had shifted, or there was a climate change for the worst? Tsunamis could have broken out if they missed their target or if the bomb somehow landed in liquid water.

SilentBlue

This seems to have been a very typical paranoia-driven waste of time and effort in the USSR for the sake of intimidation. Now the underground criminal organizations of Russia are some of the richest arms distributors on the black market. The nation should be heavily pressured to scale back such haphazard and immensely dangerous operations.

anon6221

Tsar Bomba's yield was reduced from 100Mt to 50Mt by the simple expedient of substituting lead for uranium in the secondary/tertiary stages.

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